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Luís Fontes packed much into his 27 years – flying, wartime escapades and jail and, oh yes, victory in the world’s greatest endurance race. He looked anything but an adventurer – this bespectacled gentleman had more in keeping with P.G.Wodehouse’s Jeeves and Wooster than any racing star.
Privileged upbringing and early racing success
Antônio Fontes was a Brazilian shipping tycoon who married an English girl. They had a son but he was not yet a year-old when his father died. Educated at Loughborough, Luís Fontes inherited his father’s considerable fortune on his 21st birthday in 1933. He immediately started to indulge new passions for motor racing and flying.
He entered the 1935 JCC International Trophy at Brooklands and shook the establishment by winning in the ex-John Cobb Alfa Romeo 8C “Monza”. He evidently held no store by superstition for the car sported the unlucky number 13 and green paintwork – also considered a curse by some at the time.
Le Mans winner for Lagonda
As a consequence of that success, Fontes was invited to share John Hindmarsh’s 4.5-litre Lagonda Rapide for that year’s Le Mans 24 Hours. They drove a steady race and scored a surprise victory despite late gearbox problems, aided when faster Alfa Romeos wilted or were told to slow in error.
Fontes also took part in air races but the adrenalin-filled year that was 1935 came to an abrupt halt on October 6. He killed a motorcyclist in a head-on accident while intoxicated and was convicted of manslaughter. Luís Fontes’ care-free days were over and he was sentenced to three years in jail. However he was flying in competition again as soon as he was released.
He then joined the Air Transport Auxiliary when World War II was declared and was delivering a Wellington bomber to RAF Llandow in Wales when an engine failed on approach to the airfield. He was killed in the ensuing crash.
It is easy to see Fontes’ life as too much money, too young. His after-race parties were indeed riotous but he was arguably Brazil’s first successful racing driver and certainly was part of Britain’s most forgotten Le Mans triumph.